Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Is Confession Good for Your Soul? Can You Be Forgiven?

I miss the Church's confessional, a holy phone booth with a direct line to God

I wish could go to a Drive-By Confessional and rattle off my sins to an anonymous priest, and be awarded absolution, forgiveness, mercy, or an eternal, all-inclusive indulgence, if possible.

I miss hearing "Go now, you are forgiven."

I'm a recovering Catholic: I can never be anything else, but I can't engage actively in the practice without endangering myself. For me there should be meetings.

I wish I could be part of the religion in which I was raised, but the Church and I disagree on too many subjects and I respect it too much to pretend to believe in what I cannot.

But I miss the act of confession's luxuriousness, the "whew" of completed penance.

When I left the church, they hadn't yet changed the name to "reconciliation" and to be honest--and we should probably aim for honesty in a post about confession, right? --I'm glad. I don't want to be reconciled; I want to be ABSOLVED.

I'm not even sure what for, exactly. Everything and nothing. The huge and trivial sins of an ordinary life: lust, greed, gossip, selfishness, lack of faith.

My shrink, bless her, tells me my transgressions are not so fancy-schmancy but instead rather dull. Yawn-inducing dull, apparently. Therefore, she says, I shouldn't worry about going to hell. (She was also raised Catholic and understands when I need her to translate into my own language of desperation and leave the reasonable vocabulary of respectable therapy behind).

But I don't think I'm the only one who wants to confess.

We ache to tell our stories, to relieve the stress of secrecy, and to have someone listen. And the motives and effects of confession are as cataclysmic as they are universal.

Everything from the talk show, to the twelve-step meeting, to the church ritual, to the midnight phone call to an ex-lover, involves some longing for confession.

Playing out an emotional striptease, removing every layer of shame to reveal the "true" self buried underneath, has become a private and national pastime. Politicians, celebrities, sports figures--everybody, it seems--has turned the boasts of their youth to the confessions of their adult lives. What they once glorified, they now apparently choose to repent--all the while counting on the enthralled attention of their fans, on whose generosity they rely. Why?

Is the desire to confess as a sign of strength ("None but the well-bred man knows how to confess a fault, or acknowledge himself in an error," mused Benjamin Franklin) or a sign of weakness ("We confess to little faults only to persuade ourselves that we have no great ones," notes La Rochefoucauld)?

Why are women, who seem to be more ready to unburden themselves to other people (especially to other women) so reluctant to tell their husbands about any infidelities that they almost never admit to an indiscretion--even when the husband is sheepishly admitting his own? Recent studies have shown that men are far more likely to confess an affair to their wives than wives are to their husbands.

What are women willing to tell other women? What are men willing to tell other men? How do the differences affect our everyday lives?

How are friendships affected by confession? How much should you admit to a friend if you want to keep the relationship intact?

Confessional daytime talk shows notwithstanding, perhaps no human activity is so personal, so introspective or so noble as confessing.

But that's only true when other people do it.

Under the heading "confession" we can file a range of activities and emotions-- from unburdening ourselves about an affair to admitting that we dye our hair. We want to be forgiven when we have insulted, when we've deceived, when we've demeaned, when we've abandoned, when we've betrayed. We want to be forgiven for everything, big and small, what we've done and left undone.

Occasionally we manage to bite our tongues and get past the need to act out our confession, but more often we find that confession--of one sort or another--is integral to our self-esteem. Or perhaps we find that we end up telling our deepest and scariest secrets despite ourselves because the desire to confess is too strong to be driven underground for more than a brief time.

So it goes with confession. We are willing to run the risk of forfeiting those possessions usually held dear--pride, privacy, and detachment--in the interest of being able to start over with a clean slate, to have the proverbial record expunged.

No wonder I miss it. No wonder I tell stories elsewhere.

More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today